There seems to be a lot of confusion out there as to the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. This article will break down the major sources of omega-3’s and give you the information you need to make educated choices.
First, there are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: DHA, EPA and ALA. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) are found in fish and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid ) is found in plants like flaxseed. When you choose an omega-3 source, we suggest that you select a healthy balance of all fatty acids, but make sure you are getting enough EPA and DHA, as these fatty acids are responsible for the majority of the health benefits of omega-3’s.
This is important to remember: if a food or supplement states it is high in omega-3, it does not necessarily mean it is high in EPA and DHA. For example, although flaxseed oil is six times richer than most fish oils in omega-3’s, flaxseed oil contains mainly ALA, not DHA and EPA. Unfortunately, our bodies can only convert ALA into DHA and EPA in very small amounts. Scientific studies have revealed that fatty acids from fish or fish oil, but not flaxseed oil, benefited patients with cardiovascular disease and ADHD.
The best sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish and fish oil. Cold water fish (like salmon, herring and sardines) are high in omega-3 and serve as good sources of proteins. Unfortunately, our waterways and oceans are polluted and the fish that live in them are increasingly contaminated with methyl mercury, PCBs, arsenic, DDT and other heavy metals. If you choose to get omega-3’s from eating fish, then do your homework. Be sure that you’re buying from a sustainable, deep-water fishery. Check the Environmental Defense Fund’s web site for current ocean fish recommendations and the Environmental Protection Agency’s web site for information on fresh water fish.
Fish oil supplements are also very good sources of EPA and DHA. They are easy to take, pack a powerful punch of omega 3’s and they are highly effective. Although there are very good products available, the drawback is figuring out which fish oil supplement to choose for your family. Because the majority of fish in our oceans are contaminated, it stands to reason that oil from the fish are subject to the same contaminants. The good news is that high-quality fish oil is processed several times to concentrate and purify the oil so that it is safe and effective. So if you are looking for a fish oil supplement, ask if the oil is tested for quality, purity and concentration by an independent third party, such as the IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards). And don't hesitate to ask if the results of those tests are published for everyone to see.
Duda MK, O'Shea KM, Tintinu A, Xu W, Khairallah RJ, Barrows BR, Chess DJ, Azimzadeh AM, Harris WS, Sharov VG, Sabbah HN, Stanley WC. Fish oil, but not flaxseed oil, decreases inflammation and prevents pressure overload-induced cardiac dysfunction. Cardiovasc Res. 2009 Feb 1; 81(2):319-27.
Wang C, Harris WS, Chung M, Lichtenstein AH, Balk EM, Kupelnick B, Jordan HS, Lau J. n-3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not alpha-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jul; 84(1):5-17.
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Environmental Defense Fund: www.edg.org
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov